Edna Ferber

Have you ever experienced a time when one person’s name seems to come up again and again, to the point that you ask how can this person have done so much? It has been that way lately for me with Edna Ferber.

Edna Ferber was born in 1885 and died in 1968. In between those years she wrote novels, plays, short stories, and essays. She won a Pulitzer Prize, and quite a few of her books were made into movies, one that won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and one that is included in the American Film Institute’s (AFI) list of the 100 best films of all time.

This all starts with So Big, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of 1925. That year, it was made into a silent film starring Colleen Moore. In 1932 it was remade as a talking picture starring Barbara Stanwyck. But it is the 1953 version, starring Jane Wyman, that people know best.

Her 1926 novel Show Boat was the basis for Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s ground-breaking 1927 musical. There were three film versions: 1929, 1936, and 1953. Ferber herself made her acting debut in 1939 when Orson Welles produced a radio version of Show Boat: Ferber was cast as Parthy Ann Hawkes.

She wrote Cimarron in 1929. It was made into a movie starring Richard Dix and Irene Dunne—a movie that won the Oscar for best picture in 1931. Cimarron was remade in 1960, starring Glenn Ford and Maria Schell.

In 1941 she wrote Saratoga Trunk, which became a movie in 1945, starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. In 1959, the musical Saratoga, based on the book, premiered on Broadway, featuring songs by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. It ran for 80 performances, and was not nearly the hit Show Boat had been.

Her 1952 book Giant became the 1956 movie starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and, in his final role before his death, James Dean. Dean actually died in a car accident before filming was complete, and Nick Adams—who would later play Johnny Yuma in the TV show The Rebel—filled in some scenes. Giant stands at number 82 on the AFI’s list of the best movies.

Finally, her 1958 book Ice Palace was filmed in 1960, starring Richard Burton and Robert Ryan. Ferber wrote several plays with George S. Kaufman, and of those, Stage Door and Dinner at Eight became movies.

Ferber was never married nor romantically linked to anyone. She was of Hungarian-Jewish descent, and had suffered painful anti-semitism growing up in Iowa and Wisconsin. Most of her books feature characters whose race, religion, or ethnicity cause them to experience prejudice. She was also a member of the Algonquin Round Table, known for her acerbic wit. As such, she was portrayed by Lili Taylor in the 1994 movie Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.

It seems a coincidence that I have encountered Edna Ferber’s name so many times in the past few months. Then again, it’s only fitting in March, Women’s History Month, to stop and think about a woman who had such a huge influence on the literature, movies, and musicals of the 20th century.